Codfish's blog

From Hyannis To Honolulu: Fear Of Flying Grounding Many Travelers

By Greg O’Brien, Codfish Press

coffeetea2The tragic crash yesterday of Delta connection carrier Comair in Lexington, Kentucky, bursting into flames just beyond the runway and killing dozens of people, will likely fuel a nationwide angst over the safety of air travel, even though there is no indication that security-related issues were responsible for the crash.  

Examples of the last week point to a collective paranoia. In the Delta terminal Friday at Cincinnati Airport in nearby Covington, Ky, passengers awaiting a flight to Boston were intensely inspected, scanned and scrutinize—de rigueur these day for airport security checks. One woman apparently drew attention in the crowd. Was she concealing a weapon, planning on smuggling ingredients for an explosive cocktail over the Charles River, or was she part of another terrorist cell, plotting “mass murder on an unimaginable scale,” as a senior British police officer said of the foiled terrorist plot earlier in the month that has set in place an airport screening process that is rude, repetitive and so anal it might be effective?

No, the woman was frail, in her 80s and confined to a wheelchair, her lip-gloss as menacing as running mascara. And yet the fumbling airport security personnel—you know, the types who never did homework in the eighth grade, end up with these low-paying jobs and are now charged with our overseeing our safety—spent what seemed like the air time to Logan, interrogating the woman and buzzing her with surveillance equipment.

“They did everything but give this poor lady a body cavity check,” Justine O’Brien-Holmes, a passenger on the flight, said of the behavior profiling about as appropriate as a policeman pulling over a toddler on a tricycle for speeding. “Did they think she was going to throw a wheelchair at someone?”

Score one for the terrorists last Friday, as pitiable scenes like this played out in airports across the nation, along with seven terror-alert incidents of forced landings, diversions and delays involving U.S. air travel where no indication of terrorism was found, not even in the partial stick of dynamite discovered in the luggage of a Continental Airlines flight that had landed in Houston. Terrorists are winning the intimidation game, in some ways of greater value to them than inflicting mass injuries and deaths. Imagination can be more paralyzing than reality; fear of the shark, film producer Stephen Spielberg taught us in the movie Jaws, is more terrifying than the bite.

But for now, we must swim with the sharks, and it will only get worse until a porous Department of Homeland Security improves its dysfunctional and poorly managed bureaucracy, overcoming its own serious flaws and the internecine warfare among related law enforcement agencies. Stuck on Iraq and outwitted by nuclear Iran and its marionette Hezbollah, the Bush Administration must make homeland security a more focused priority. Whether it’s high-tech biometrics to discern a hostile intent or better-trained airport security personnel, it’s the motherland, stupid! And if Bush has learned anything from his father, he should know this.

From Hyannis To 'Sconset: Dog Days Of Summer Wag For Perspective

By Greg O’Brien, Codfish Press

In an unsettling week that saw the solar system expanding to 12 planets, the discovery of creepy Frankenstein grass engineered in a lab and growing wild in the fields of central Oregon, and the shelling of Red Sox pitchers for 47 runs at the hands of Bronx bats (12.67 bullpen ERA), our lives cry out for normalcy—relief from an Alice in Wonderland world where “nothing would be what it is because everything would be what it isn’t.”
In the blink of a celestial eye, scientists turned the universe on its cauliflower ear with the “discovery” of three new planets: Ceres, an asteroid of a sphere between Mars and Jupiter; Charon, once considered a stepsister of Pluto; and exotic Xena, now the outermost planet, at least until scientists declare new ones.

If that wasn’t earth shaking enough, an unsanctioned form of genetically engineered, herbicide-resistant grass was found growing at will outside an Oregon lab, suggesting “agricultural biotechnology cannot be adequately controlled,” The New York Times reported. Yikes! We’re heading to a plant and animal kingdom of genetic copies and clones.

The Friday-Saturday-Sunday Red Sox drubbing doesn’t deserve comment, other than to say Josh Beckett gave up more walks than the Freedom Trail.

This clearly was the weekend to be in absentia from earth. No better place to flee than Nantucket where the real and imagined are clearly defined—a place in summer that offers more captains of industry per square inch than Manhattan, Los Angeles and Chicago combined, more heavenly bodies than a star-flecked sky, and locals that are as real as beach plums. Out in ‘Sconset on the island’s refined eastern edge, nestled between rose-grown bluffs and waves of cranberry bogs, Charon and Xena are not “plutons,” but names that are likely to surface on the guest list at The Summer House—a snug and elegant escape that offers up a Scott and Zelda Fitzgerald mise en scene, as its owners promise. The only news to be generated this side of the island, nurtured from 17th century fishing shanties, is Channel 5’s Natalie Jacobson having lunch on the open sitting porch overlooking a wide swath of the Atlantic or summer resident John Kerry dining on seared halibut and jumbo lump crab.

No word either on Iraq, Colombian drug lords or Joe Lieberman’s independent streak in the wide broadsheet weekly Inquirer & Mirror, just a lead story on high energy Selectman Doug Bennett running for state senate by chasing cars around rotaries, and a sobering business piece on how millionaire summer people aren’t spending as much money this season. “The goose that laid the golden egg is severely annihilated,” proffers taxi-driver Bruce Watts, a former selectmen and retired fire chief.

Ah, Nantucket, the perfect perspective for a world on the whack. Cellphone coverage is spotty here, news is a day late, and the rich, it seems, are a dollar short. It’s perfect, just perfect! I think I’ll have the native striped bass tonight.

Dividing The Middle East: False Prophets and Promises

By Greg O’Brien, Codfish Press
Taking two steps forward before a ceremonial step backwards, Israeli tanks and soldiers pressed deeper into Southern Lebanon on the eve of a U.N. Security Council cease-fire plan expected to be implemented today, widening a buffer zone to hinder Hezbollah rockets from hitting their targets—but don’t count on it. After Hezbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah gave his averse consent to the tenuous truce, the Israel’s cabinet agreed to the cease-fire, which seeks to end hostilities and reach a lasting solution between the two parties that have called for each other’s extinction.

Without an all-embracing phased withdrawal, an immediate discharge into the abyss of both the Lebanese army and an international peace-keeping force, strict enforcement of a previous U.N. resolution to disarm Hezbollah, and the continued resolve of the United States, France and other Western allies, the cease-fire has about as much chance of succeeding as Yasser Arafat has of another term. This is no time for cruise control in the Middle East.

As evangelist Billy Graham, in the twilight of his ministry, observed of the Middle East in a cover profile in the current Newsweek, “…history began there, and it is going to end there.” While no one knows the time or place of the last great battle—Armageddon, as Revelations 16:16 calls it—the tumblers, Graham suggests, are slowly clicking into place. Any Middle East strategy that does not take this divinely ordained truth into account is doomed to collapse. Despite claims of false political prophets, there is no enduring solution to the Middle East crisis, only delay tactics that still ought to be pursued aggressively. Middle East stratagems also should take into account the fact that so long as the United States embraces Israel—as we should—we will continue to be targets at home and abroad.

With radical countries like Syria and Iran freely supplying Hezbollah, the Lebanese conflict has demonstrated the ease with which proxy wars can be fought. The “Party of God’s” surprise success and its influence over the weedy Lebanese will likely encourage other hostile Middle Eastern countries to wage future proxy battles against Israel and its supporters through fanatic organizations like Hezbollah, Al Qaeda and others.

In light of this—along with last week’s foiled terrorist attempt to detonate concealed liquid explosives aboard as many as ten commercial flights from Britain to the United States, and the critical need for a foreign policy that adjusts to the realities of the world today—we must get real ourselves, and in the coming months broaden the definition of our “Big Brother” moniker to better protect the safety of siblings at home. As we extend support to others in the world, we must be less reactive and more proactive to escalating threats in our own backyard.

Concedes Michael Jackson, deputy secretary for Homeland Security, in a New York Times Sunday interview, “We can do more, and we can do better. And we must.”

Confession Is Good For the Soul

Banned in Boston and barred from the Cape Cod

By Greg O’Brien, Codfish Press

votfboardBanned in Boston and barred from the Cape, the dissenting Catholic lay reform group, Voice of the Faithful, met recently with Cardinal Sean P. O’Malley in a symbolic gesture that had more to do with opening blocked lines of communication than with mea culpas. It is not likely that any significant reform work within the Catholic Church will occur at any time soon without a confession that goes beyond Bernard Cardinal Law’s 2002 disingenuous resignation statement, “To all those who have suffered from my shortcomings and mistakes, I both apologize and from them beg forgiveness.”

Smacks of the cure-all absolution plea in the shadows of confessional box: “For these and all the sins of my past life, I am sorry!”  

More and more—from church officials, to corporate heads, to politicians, to working stiffs on the street—we as a society seem to be excusing ourselves from confession, whether it’s queuing up in a church line or seeking forgiveness from a colleague, spouse or friend, experts in the field are now saying. The preface ”Bless me, Father, for I have sinned” seems to have gone the way, in some circles, of eat, drink and be merry, for tomorrow we die.

otoolejames_01What’s happening in the Catholic Church is symptomatic of a broader change in values and a blurring of the line between right and wrong. “The most striking development in the practice of confession in the U.S. has been its disappearance…and the speed with which it has collapsed,” James O’Toole (on right), Boston College history professor, author, and one of the foremost authorities on the history of the Catholic Church in America, wrote in a Boston College Magazine piece on the subject. “In the modern day, the power of evil is just as strong as it ever was (maybe stronger), but the American Catholics no longer understand the world and their behavior in it through the precise distinctions between mortal and venial sins. They are only too fully aware of what Commonweal called ‘the ambiguity of evil,” and they resort to many sources of moral authority—most notably, their own consciences—in facing that ambiguity.”

O’Toole, in an August Boston Irish Reporter profile, said our view of the notion of sin has morphed to more collective transgressions “Sin seems to have shifted away from personal responsibility—from ‘I pushed my sister’ to social issues…It’s a broader sin, one that is difficult to denounce individually,” he said.

As we become more “educated,” concedes a recent University of Cincinnati report on moral values in America, “the complexity of life does make drawing a line between good and evil difficult.”

Education makes man a more clever fellow

Our complex broadband information highway is choking us today with options. Anything you want—from drugs to pornography and everything in between—is available with a keystroke. The warning signs are posted. Without an abrupt change in values and direction, we are headed into a black hole of malevolence. Observed the reflective C.S. Lewis decades ago, “Education without values, as useful as it is, seems rather to make man more of a clever devil.”

Gambling On An Informed Electorate

Voter indifference is epidemic from California to Chatham

Click to see proposalBy Greg O'Brien, Codfish Press 

Want indisputable proof of global warming? Look to the Valley of the Sun in Phoenix where record 116-degree heat this summer is frying craniums. Arizona is considering a proposal to boost voter turnout with a $1 million lottery prize to a randomly selected voter who casts a ballot, the Associated Press reports. Each ballot, according to the plan, would be assigned a number; the commission overseeing the Arizona Lottery would then hold a drawing to pick a winner—the payoff coming from unclaimed Lottery prizes.

Some crap shoot! Opponents of the measure say it will trivialize elections with Pavlov-like rewards. Encouraging democracy with bags of cash is certainly not what the Founding Fathers had in mind.

Arizonians—who may fear waves of political aftershocks from neighboring California where less than 30 percent of the state’s registered voters turned out in the last election—will vote on the proposal Nov. 7 after supporters gathered about 184,000 ballot signatures, nearly 50 percent more than required.

From California to Chatham, voter indifference is epidemic. “Of the 153 democracies in the world, the United States ranks near the bottom for voter involvement,” notes political observer John Dean, adding that 89 percent of potential voters participate in national and local elections in places like Japan and Germany. Many U.S. politicians may want to keep it this way. With less than half of potential voters exercising their franchise over the last four decades, it’s easier to spin 26 percent of those voting with an intense special interest drive, head-turning but hollow sound bites, and aggressive election-eve phone banking and e-mail blasts. Today, only a handful of states allow Election Day registration. By contrast, voter participation in those states is about five percent to 15 percent higher than other states. Two years ago, a MassVOTE survey found that nine percent of those who showed up to vote in Massachusetts on Election Day were denied the right because they weren’t registered.

Indeed, voter education and registration starting in high school and appealing to the electorate’s self-interest will help overcome voter malaise, a paralyzing ennui. Self-interest, observed Alexis de Tocqueville, is “the chief, if not the only driving force behind all behavior.” Wrote de Tocqueville, “(It) is difficult to force a man out of himself and get him to take an interest in the affairs of the whole state, for he has little understanding of the way in which the fate of the state can influence his own lot.”

Dean quotes de Tocqueville in his Findlaw column, as well as the annotations of Robert Hutchins, former dean of Yale Law School. “The death of democracy,” Hutchins once said, “is not likely to be an assassination from ambush. It will be a slow extinction from apathy, indifference and undernourishment.”

Our leaders clearly need to feed the “self-interest” of an anorexic electorate by reforming voter registration laws and educating voters that their opinions count. You don’t need a lottery ticket for that.

Lebanon: No Time To ?Lay There and Bleed?

By Greg O’Brien, Codfish Press

Time magazine declared last week on its cover: “The End of Cowboy Diplomacy.” It was a thought provoking, yet misdirected in part, perspective on President Bush’s “grand strategy for remaking the world” and “what North Korea, Iraq and Iran teach us about the limits of going it alone” in the ongoing struggle against the “axis of evil.”

“To accomplish those goals of democracy building, you need help,” Time observed. “The biggest illusion of the Bush Doctrine was the idea that the U.S. could carry out a strategy as ambitious as reshaping the Middle East and changing unfriendly regimes without a degree of international legitimacy and cooperation to back it up.”

Hold that thought! One of the biggest illusions today on the international scene is the United Nations, and the suggestion that only UN action can end Lebanon’s misery today is a magic act worthy of the great Houdini. As Israel steps up its righteous incursion into Southern Lebanon against terrorist Hezbollah guerrillas in an attempt to disenfranchise this self-proclaimed “party of God” and enforce UN Resolution 1559 calling on “all remaining foreign forces to withdraw from Lebanon,” our world body of peace seems impotent as ever. UN monitoring forces near the border are about as practicable as a substitute teacher in a raucous Bronx high school. Sanctioned by the UN Security Council in February 2004, Resolution 1559 has been a declaration in name only.

If history is any indication, the United States, Europe and key Arab allies must be prepared to go it alone—and soon—in Lebanon to disarm Iran-aided Hezbollah, with the U.S. leading the charge, far out in front if necessary. The litany of UN failures is as stunning as it is sickening: failure to prevent the 1994 Rwandan genocide that resulted in the massacre of nearly a million people; failure to enforce UN Resolution 1291 and effectively intervene in the Second Congo War (1998-2002) which claimed five million victims; failure to deliver food to starving people in Somalia in the early 1990s (the shipments instead were confiscated by local warlords); and failure to stop sexual abuse at the hands of UN “peacekeepers.”

It’s time for the United States to “cowboy up” in the Middle East. We must deal with Lebanon head on, or with a select coalition of committed allies, to douse this flame of terrorism before it ignites into an inferno. In rodeo terms, the 2003 Red Sox mantra means “suck it up in times of adversity,” Joseph P. Kahn wrote at the time in The Boston Globe, noting a T-shirt slogan that proclaimed:  “Are you Gonna Cowboy Up or Just Lay There and Bleed?”

This is no time to lay there and bleed. Fighting terrorism in Lebanon is all together different than sweeping Iraq for nukes that never existed. Get the hats and guns out, George, and water the horses!

Clawing For Answers On Big Dig Tunnel Collapse

By Greg O’Brien, Codfish Press

Imagine a world, ponders realty show host Joe Rogan, “where your greatest fears become reality.” Welcome to Boston, where reality on the road is ugly. Fear Factor returns to the Hub this week, and contestants have no clue of the gut-wrenching stunts they may have to perform, as they pick their way through the angst of plying the most mismanaged, maligned and costly federal highway project in the nation’s history. There’s no light at the end of this tunnel, just a black hole of anguish.

Grieved family and friends on Saturday mourned the death of the 38-year-old Jamaica Plain woman, Milena Del Valle, killed in last week’s Big Dig tunnel collapse of tons of concrete ceiling slabs. Inside a crowded, searing church, state and local officials—Gov. Mitt Romney, Attorney General Thomas F. Reilly, Mayor Thomas M. Menino and Massachusetts Turnpike Authority Chairman Matthew J. Amorello among them—listened as mourners pleaded with officials to bury political differences on the cause of this tragedy and make the tunnel system safe for drivers. Outside the church, friends of the deceased gave officials holy hell for waiting until Del Valle’s death before initiating a nuts and bolts review of the $14.6 billion project, riddled from the start with deficiencies and the stench of malfeasance and misfeasance.

“Why not do that before this happened?” Margarita Sifre told The Boston Globe. “This situation could have been prevented.”

Millions throughout Massachusetts are wondering the same thing: Why do officials have to wait for a tragedy before acting in earnest? As investigators sort through reports of more than 240 loose ceiling bolt fixtures scattered throughout the faulty Interstate 90 connector, officials and project supervisors need to take inventory of the warning signs—from Big Dig audits ten years ago citing waste and mismanagement, to gushing leaks, to raining rocks and debris, to indictments for tainted concrete.

“What we are looking at is anyone who had anything to do with what happened,” Reilly said last Tuesday in announcing his investigation. “No one is going to be spared.”

That ought to include a top-down Beacon Hill rebuke that flushes from the Governor’s Office (political impotency on this is no excuse), to the Legislature and into the Attorney General’s Office for not resolutely persisting on a comprehensive review of this fiasco that cost more in today’s dollars than the 51-mile Panama Canal. As for Amorello, he is about as useful to this process now as the steel tieback that once held in place a 40-foot section of concrete ceiling over eastbound Interstate 90.

The Japanese say fix the problem, not the blame. Those affected by this disaster seem to be saying: fix the problem, then assess the blame. And assess it in a way that rotates heads.

Of the reams of news coverage, scores of interviews and hours of video, the most enlightening analysis to date is from a 58-year-old Dorchester man who told the Globe: “Only $14.6 billion, you think it might work.”


Son Of A Legend, Tom O'Neill Cuts His Own Path

By Greg O’Brien, Boston Irish Reporter

(Ed. Note: The O’Neill roots run deep on the Cape. The late Speaker of the House Thomas P. “Tip” O’Neill lived an active retirement in Harwich with his wife Millie, playing golf, contributing to the local food pantry and assisting with various charities. His son, Tom, former Massachusetts lieutenant governor and a man of influence in New England politics, has spent much time on the Cape with family and business ventures. The following profile of Tom O’Neill appeared in this month’s Boston Irish Reporter.)

In the lobby of O’Neill and Associates at 31 New Chardon Street, not far from the State House, is an imposing black and white photograph of a father and son. Almost sepia in tone, it cuts through generations of Boston politics like a spoon through chowder. In the photograph the father is leaning to the son, who seems to be hanging on every word. Larger than life, the late Thomas P. “Tip” O’Neill jr.—the distinguished Speaker of the U.S House of Representatives and “a big man who never became a big shot,” as a friend recently noted—is very much a presence here. You can see it in the son’s face.

At 60, in the “sixth inning” of his life, as he terms it, Thomas P. O’Neill III, who served as Massachusetts lieutenant governor from 1975 to 1983 and now heads a seasoned team of government and public relations professionals, is becoming more and more his father’s son with the trademark tuft of white hair, a large bulbous noise, a “Hiyah, darlin’” grin, and piercing blue eyes that can see into the back room of any Boston establishment. Off the lobby, the south wall of a well-appointed conference room, the color of eelgrass at sunset, is framed with father-son memories and rows of photos of Tom with the likes of Ted Kennedy, George Bush, Bill Clinton and other political luminaries—both Democrat and Republican.

No one has to tell you that Tom O’Neill and his firm are well connected.  Everything here speaks to a knack for opening doors and understanding the principles of marketing and the process of government. Beyond the photographs, strategically placed newspaper clips testify to this fact. The branding is everywhere. Even the paper hand towels in the bathroom are embossed with the company name. (Maybe it’s the Irish in me, but the hand towels were too nice, so I reached for the Kleenex.)

At 11:15 am on a steamy morning in mid June, about 45 minutes after the appointed time and right on schedule for the multi-tasking O’Neill, the son enters the room. He is tanned, appears relaxed, and is dressed smartly in a blue shirt, red tie, gray pants, and black loafers, no sox. Fashion aside, in every other way—body language, tone and personality—he reminds a visitor of the father. And on this day, five days before Father’s Day and a week after the dedication of a Big Dig tunnel in his father’s memory, all the son wants to talk about is his dad.

“I miss him terribly,” says O’Neill, recalling the gritty North Cambridge neighborhood where his parents were raised and where he grew up. “The world remembers Tip O’Neill as a politician. We remember him as a father, and a pretty good one!” says O’Neill, the oldest son, noting that many of his father’s lessons were “on the run or drive by,” but were lasting. “My dad was around mostly on weekends, but he made sure they were family-oriented weekends, spending time with Mom and all five of the children. He had a good sense of everything—from the neighborhood where we lived on up. He wanted to make sure we all got a good education, most especially his own children, and that we were taught the work ethic and shown values in life. We all worked at an early age, and understood the principles of loyalty—that we came from a neighborhood, that we had a family, and that we had a God.”

Among the greatest lessons his father taught him, O’Neill says, was an instruction that was simple and to the point. “Dad would always stress to us: You live in a working class neighborhood, and your father is a Congressman. Even though you don’t have money, you enjoy prestige. Don’t ever take advantage of it.” A man of many blessings, Tip O’Neill’s greatest gift, the son adds, was his “love of people and his ability to navigate through life.” When the Speaker died of cardiac arrest at age eighty-one on January 5, 1994, President Bill Clinton eulogized him as one of the nation's “most prominent and loyal champions of American workers” and as a man who “genuinely loved politics and people.”

At an early age, O’Neill had a gut that his father was special. “I had a sense growing up, I think we all did, that he was different from everyone else’s father.” It was a revelation confirmed in the third grade in 1952 when his father was first elected to Congress. “But we were not allowed to stay home and celebrate,” says O’Neill. “My father insisted we were in school the next day. It was a signal to the nuns and to the neighborhood that nothing was going to change or be taken advantage of.”

There were, however, to be some fleeting family windfalls, like the time O’Neill got an “A” in behavior in the seventh grade, and then told a nun in earnest that he didn’t deserve it. “You know, Mr. O’Neill,” the nun replied, “If I gave you what you deserve, you would flunk.” She promptly gave O’Neill an “F” for deportment, and got word back to the congressman. The next morning O’Neill was awoken by a strong backhand to his backside. “You know,” his father said with great aggravation, “I don’t have anything in life to give you, but for God sakes, learn to take advantage of what you have. You have a good personality, use it!”

It was a lesson and a backhand O’Neill never forgot, as he slowly embraced his father’s personality. Asked about the physical resemblance today, his eyes light up like vapor lights at Fenway. “Hey, I look like ‘em!” He is clearly proud of the fact. “When I get up in the morning and stare into the mirror, it’s frightening,” O’Neill jokes. “Actually, I wish I looked more like my Mom.”

O’Neill’s late mother Mildred (“Millie” Chabot-Miller) also had a strong sway on her son. “My Mom was very exacting, practical, and religious,” says O’Neill. “She was very much into the community and very much by herself. She had a defined streak of intelligence and privacy that carried her through life.”

Tip’s partner in every way, Millie O’Neill ultimately became the “godmother to the Democratic Party,” as House Democratic Leader Nancy Pelosi once called her. “She was independent and had to be,” says O’Neill, “ just dealing with my father’s Washington schedule and raising the family by herself during the week required this.” The loner factor instilled great confidence in her and in her children. “Thanks to my mother, I have the ability,” says O’Neill, “to go off and be by myself for any period of time.” The gift of solitude, he adds, is a stroke of fortune in the hectic world of business and politics.

O’Neill’s parents connected at an early age. They met at St. John’s High School, now North Cambridge Catholic. “Mom was a freshman and dad was a junior,” says O’Neill. “They were just two poor kids who helped each other in school, and I think that beyond the physical attraction, they just grew together.”

The O’Neill roots run deep in North Cambridge. A third generation Irishman whose family came from Mallow, County Cork, O’Neill’s grandfather, Thomas P. O’Neill sr. was a bricklayer, who laid brick at Harvard Yard, and served one term on the Cambridge City Council, then called the Common Council, in 1899. His brother had served on the council earlier, the start of a long O’Neill family tenure in politics. It was O’Neill’s grandfather coined the phrase. After the loss of his city council seat, O’Neill’s grandfather coined the phrase, the centerpiece of his son’s political life, “All politics is local.” He became a ward boss after becoming Superintendent of Sewers, now Superintendent of Public Works, holding the job from 1902 to 1941. “It was a great political base, from which my father ran for office,” says O’Neill.

Early on, tragedy struck the O’Neill household—Tip’s mother, Ann, died from complications at his birth. “It’s a little know fact,” O’Neill says. “My father, like the Irish, never talked about it. I don’t remember his talking about it once, but I know it had an affect on him.” Tip’s father then remarried, and the family stayed in the neighborhood.

With family history firmly and directing his paths, Tom O’Neill attended the same high school as his parents and followed in his father’s footsteps to Boston College, which in those days was making the transition from a commuter school to a national university. He graduated with a degree in education, and taught for a week and a half at Watertown High School before abruptly quitting. “It was the closest thing to incarceration I’d ever experienced,” he recalls. “It just wasn’t for me.”

After talking to the dean at the BC business school, he determined his strength was in sales and after six months of training in New York, he got a job in Boston selling stocks and bonds for a company called Harris Upham, which later became a part of Smith Barney. While at Harris Upham, O’Neill engaged in politics, running his father’s reelection campaign. “There was an expectation as the oldest son that I would go into politics some day, be a candidate for office. I learned I had a knack for it.”

And he liked it. In 1972, he left Upham Harris to run for a seat in the legislature, the same district his father had represented, from Herald Square in North Cambridge to Belmont Hill. He won, but left after a term with the same angst he had over teaching. “It was awful, too confining,” he says. “You weren’t in control of your destiny.”

He still had a bug for politics. So as an “exit strategy,” he decided in 1974 to run for lieutenant governor. He assumed he could win the Democratic nomination with his dad’s name and his own modest accomplishments, running on a ticket with either Mike Dukakis or Bob Quinn. “But at that point, no one was going to beat the Republican incumbents (Gov.) Frank Sergeant and (Lt. Gov.) Donald Dwight,” recalls O’Neill. “ I figured if I just won the nomination, I’d reserve the right to go off and do my thing and come back and run again some day. But that August, too many criminals had escaped from state jails and the economy turned a bit.”

Dukakis and O’Neill were elected. During his term, O’Neill created and administered the Office of Federal-State Relations in Boston and Washington, continuing that role in his Ed King Administration tenure. After leaving office in 1983, O’Neill—now an experienced liaison—created a Boston PR firm that merged with communications consultant Pamela McDermott to become McDermott/O’Neill & Associates. After the two departed company, the firm was sold in 1999 to a unit of the Omnicom Group of New York. O’Neill stayed on, representing clients like Bechtel/Parsons Brinckerhoff, manager of the Central Artery/Ted Williams Tunnel. In 2003, O’Neill reacquired the assets of his old firm, along with the staff and clients. Today, O’Neill and Associates is a full service communications, government relations and public relations firm, specializing in how government, business and the media work, with clients ranging from W.B. Mason, to Harvard Pilgrim Health Care to the South Korean government.  

Does O’Neill miss politics?

“Absolutely, I miss it,” he says. “Of course. But do I want to get off the couch on a Saturday afternoon and attend a ground breaking in order to become the next governor or the next U.S. Senator, well I suppose if I did, I’d be doing it. I haven’t yet.”

Sounding like his father, he adds, “I’ve built a good organization with wonderful people, and they have families and homes and need to educate their children. This is a real machine today, and I feel responsible for it.”

The talk returns to his father. “The secret to life, my father taught me, is doing what you want to do, and achieving what you must,” he says. “I’ve been pretty lucky so far with a good family and a good life.” O’Neill spends as much time as he can with his two children, daughter Leigh, 25 who just graduated from Johns Hopkins University with a graduate degree, and his son Tom, 19, a student at NYU. He and his wife, Jackie, who met at Boston College, are now separated.

None of this good fortune, O’Neill says, has happened by chance. Like his father, he is a man of faith, a conviction that has help him navigate the cross currents of life. Asked if he has a close personal relationship with his God, he pauses as if the question is awkward, then replies, “The Lord? Yes, I talk to Him. And He keeps telling me to do what I believe in.”

Not a bad game plan in the sixth inning of a life.


First Person Plural: We The People

By Greg O’Brien, Codfish Press

Our Founding Fathers knew the rules of syntax, and the significance of the words, “We the People.” This great country was built on the first person plural, but some of the self-appointed grammarians in the White House, up on Capitol Hill and in amber waves of grain and on purple mountain majesties across America continue invoking the first person singular on the lip of Independence Day in partisan red, white and blue parades of political leanings. So much for “a more perfect Union.”

The latest syntactical breach occurred last Thursday when the Republican-controlled House of Representatives voted to denounce several newspapers, in a rope-a-dope to the New York Times, for publishing the particulars of the Bush Administration’s secret program to track the financial records of terrorists. The program, examining “tens of thousands, maybe hundreds of thousands” of private banking records, was yet another swipe at the Fourth Amendment privacy rights of the average American, and its vetting by the media led to a broadside against the First Amendment guarantee of a free press. In a nonbinding “Sense of the Congress,” the resolution, approved by a 227-183 margin, scolded the media for its reporting, noting that media organization “may have placed the lives of Americans in danger.”

Isn’t that what John Hancock and company did in signing the Declaration of Independence 230 years ago? Without the full protections of the first and fourth amendments, we have no “we” in the constitution, only “I.” A generation after the birth of this nation, Frederick Douglass, the famous abolition movement leader and an adviser to Abraham Lincoln during the Civil War, wisely observed, “To suppress free speech is a double wrong. It violates the rights of the hearer, as well as those of the speaker.”

If we are to continue to be a torch for democracy in the world, then the rights of the “hearer” in this country must be greater than the predispositions of any Congress or White House administration, Republican or Democrat, or any special interest group. Too many flags today are unfurled by partisan winds. “We the People” regrettably is defined by who is holding the conch. There is a lack of respect in this country, among liberals and conservatives alike, for personal convictions. Why is it that those who are against the war in Iraq are unpatriotic? How come someone who opposes abortion on deeply-held spiritual grounds is a Neanderthal? Who says gays are going to hell? And why isn’t it possible that the Almighty could have created the universe without the help of evolutionists?

Our collective listening skills are pitiable. We seem more fixed on being right in this country, then in being tolerant. Tolerance has nothing to do with abdicating one’s opinions, but it has everything to do with the respect of the individual.

And that’s something that drove our Founding Fathers to Philadelphia.


A Summer Read: Weighing The Cost Of A College Education

By Greg O’Brien, Codfish Press

When the naughty boy fraternity Delta was finally kicked off campus in the 1978 National Lampoon classic “Animal House,” the impish “Bluto” Blutarsky, in the person of John Belushi, declared: “Seven years of college down the drain. Might as well join the…Peace Corps!”

Not a bad game plan, some are wondering today.

Consider this as you lounge on the beach this weekend, fish in Pleasant Bay or cruise to Nantucket: With the spring graduation of thousands of college seniors, many graduates and their parents—braced today with the debilitating cost of a college degree that often has extended the traditional four years to seven so students can work off some of the debt—are asking the question: Is there a better way?

Once the bloom is off the rose of graduation, the math is numbing for graduates and their parents. I feel the pain. My 22-year-old son, Brendan (a product of Nauset Regional High School) just graduated from the University of North Carolina at Wilmington. I also have a daughter, Colleen, who is a junior at Elon University, a son, Conor, who will be a senior at Nauset next year, and a home equity line that is wheezing.

The average college graduate leaves school with almost $20,000 in student loans and $2,000 in credit card debt, notes the Chicago Tribune in a Sunday financial piece. And parents, who do not qualify for financial aid and have little tuition reserve, are often left with $50,000 or more in debt for each graduate. Ante up the cost of three or four kids and the sum gives new meaning to the term: mid life crisis.  

There is no relief in sight for the next generation. With the outlay of a college education expected to increase at five percent a year, the average annual cost of a private college in 15 years is pegged at $51,664. Factor five percent a year to the already nose bleed cost of sending a child to Harvard, MIT, Boston College or Boston University, and you’re bracing for an annual expense of $90,000 by 2017.

“(Higher) education is at a crisis point, the result of uncontrolled cost increases over the past 20 years that have greatly exceeded the rate of inflation or annual consumer price indexes,” the Houston Chronicle observes in an editorial. “Tuition forces parents to pull all-nighters, too,” adds Paul Daugherty in the Cincinnati Enquirer.

If something isn’t done soon to slow or defray the escalating cost of a college or graduate school education, low and moderate-income students and their families will be stranded on the bus. An estimated quarter million prospective students a year are now being shut out of the system because of tuition costs and other factors, according to The National Center of Pubic Policy and Higher Education.

There should be no higher a priority in our national agenda. The price of a college education is a non-partisan issue that requires the full attention of Democrats and Republicans in Congress. Otherwise, the national landscape one day will be littered with Bluto Blutarskys.

And that isn’t funny.